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An ambitious, literate and wholly entertaining series undeserving of the critical apathy it's received.

By Matthew F. Saunders     October 25, 2000

Don't believe everything you read. For months now, many of my fellow reviewers have been decrying the merits of Steampunk, the new creator-owned Cliffhanger series from writer Joe Kelly and artist Chris Bachalo. Among other things, they've called it confusing, jumbled and hard to read. Frankly, they're missing the point. What Steampunk is, in fact, is a dense, dynamic, multi-layered story that doesn't hand you the whole plot in the first five pages. As such, it's one of the freshest comics to hit the stands in quite a while.

The problem with most popular entertainment today, whatever the medium, is that it often underestimates the audience's intelligence, spoon feeding stories and playing to the lowest common denominator. Formula is king, allowing lazy creators to churn out pre-packaged pablum that seemingly entertains the masses while simultaneously reassuring their storytelling anxieties. Granted, one of the unwritten rules of comics writing is the need to constantly (re)introduce one's characters and their status quo every issue, acting on the premise that each issue is a reader's first. And make no mistake about it; this is a legitimate concern of serial storytelling. But just as its absence can hinder a story, so can its overuse.

Which brings us to Steampunk. What Kelly and Bachalo have constructed is a thick, rich tale that has at its heart all the familiar elements fans have come to love, with a few rarely usedand quite welcomeones mixed in. As the tagline indicates, it's 'An industrial gothic sci-fi action adventure love story'an ambitious premise to say the least. In less capable hands, it would also be one doomed to failure. But the duo rise to the occasion, offering a work that's both entertaining and challenging.

It's on the latter point that my colleagues take issue. But Steampunk's challenging structure is an intentional narrative choice on the part of the creators, not a byproduct of poor storytelling. It allows readers to share in the confusion that the series' lead character, the time-displaced Cole Blaquesmith, experiences when he awakens from suspended animation in 1838 to a nightmarish London, which has become a sprawling industrial dystopia on the worst kind of crack. Cole's adventure unfolds on two levels: in the story's present as he tries to gain his bearings in his new world and reconcile to the technology that's horrifically been grafted to his bodya coal heart and steam-powered mechanical armas well as through flashbacks to the 1700s that slowly inform both him and the reader as to what's going on.

Kelly and Bachalo don't leave readers hanging, though. Along the way, they give more than enough visual and verbal clues to allow savvy readers to start piecing things together from the very first issue. And for readers who need a little more prompting, Kelly provides a short recap at the beginning of every issue, setting the stage for that issue's events. All the narrative tools are indeed there to navigate the story's multiple layers and frequent misdirection. One just has to engage him/herself in the story, putting in a little effort, as with any good piece of fiction, in order to maximize his/her enjoyment.

If one wants to nitpick, yes, there are sequences here and there that are a little too cryptic or vague. Similarly, Bachalo's gorgeous art occasionally commits the sin of too much ambition, creating overly crammed or unclear panels. But these are minor annoyances that don't irreparably harm the overall story. If one wants to finger any narrative conceit that might be perceived as a flaw, it's that the story flows best when read as the complete arcCatechism and issues #1-#5it's intended to be. That's why the habit of throwing mini-series and story arcs into trade paperbacks shortly after their release has become so popular. But collected works provide an ideal reading scenario, and one that shouldn't excuse flaws in installment storytelling. In the case of Steampunk, the story works well on both levels for all the reasons cited above, and it's not even a consideration.

In terms of the story itself, Kelly and Bachalo have created a wonderfully engaging, imaginative world. It's clear they've spent a great deal of time researching, developing and outlining their overall story and their technologically depraved 19th Century London. Equally enjoyable is their cast of characters, including the reluctant hero Cole, who's not as innocent as he first seems; the brilliant-yet-mad Absinthe, the crazed scientist who created and rules this nightmarish new London; the loyalty-torn Victoria, who wavers between conscience and king; and Randy, the thief who hears the call of revolution. They, and the rest of the supporting characters, are cast in realistic shades of gray. And while certain secrets were revealed in issue #5, it's clear there are many more twists and turns yet to come, not the least of which is the fate of Cole's beloved, Fiona; the full extent of Cole's culpability in creating this nightmarish new world; and Absinthe's true agenda.

I, for one, am excited to see such a literate, beautifully illustrated series on the stands. It explores a world rarely seen in the pages of comics, and challenges readers to think outside the box. Such a combinationwhen delivered on the wings of Kelly and Bachalo's considerable talentsprovides an engaging series that deserves to succeed in a market that sometimes fails to recognize and support the best the medium has to offer until it's too late. Besides, any series that can actually deliver on a tagline as ambitious as Steampunk's'An industrial gothic sci-fi action adventure love story'deserves acclaim in my book.


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